Monday, February 25, 2008

Obsessed with race

-- by Dave

Sometimes when I read John Derbyshire, I wish Bruce Lee were still around.

Like when I read garbage like this [via Sadly, No!:
Imagine an Obama presidency overwhelmed and floundering, like Carter's. There are enough issues, domestic and foreign, coming down the pike to make this very possible — you know them, I don't need to enumerate. Black Americans will of course go on voting for the party of a black president regardless. Nonblacks will flee from the Democrats in droves, though. A Republican landslide in the 2010 midterms (think 1994); a clear GOP victory in 2012 (think 1980).

By that point the Democratic Party might be nothing other than the party of black Americans. To the degree that black and nonblack Americans get on with each other at all, it is largely thanks to the coalition of black citizens and nonblack liberals and interest groups represented in the national political life by the Democratic Party. A permanent sundering of that coalition would be greatly to America's peril. Black Americans would be shut out of our political life.

The cruel fact is, that black Americans need the Democratic Party much more than it needs them. If a black president, with solid and unwavering black support, looks like he is dragging the Democrats down, then one solution for the Dems — only one, of course — would be to unhitch itself from black America. Already in fact, in some of the immigration news this past couple of years, I have seen black grumbles about being "left standing at the bus stop" while the Democrats go speeding off after Hispanic votes. There have been echoes of that in the Hillary-Barack set-to. (Though on the bright side, the notion that Hispanics won't vote for a black candidate seems to have been a dog that hasn't barked, at least not very loud.)

What's really noteworthy about this kind of analysis -- and it is rampant in right-wing circles when it comes to discussing Obama -- is how thoroughly Obama's candidacy is explained strictly through the prism of race, and specifically his race, as though that is the raw essence of his candidacy, the only thing about him that really matters.

It's really just a reiteration of the Steve Sailer worldview: that Obama's candidacy is being propelled by white guilt, and thus everything he does is all about race and whites' desire for absolution.

Probably the foremost voice for this view has been Shelby Steele, the Hoover Institution fellow whose book, A Bound Man: Why We Are Excited About Obama and Why He Can't Win, argues from the same basic premise. The blurb at the site above, which features video of interviews with Steele, lays this out:
Having to cater to both black voters and white voters in what binds Obama, and his dilemma is that he achieved visibility more as a racial icon than as an individual. In his analysis, Shelby Steele discusses his own mixed race background, and he empathizes with Obama's inner conflicts even as he critiques him. He also identifies the two 'masks' that blacks wear in order to seek success and power in the American mainstream: bargaining and challenging, and he argues that Obama is too constrained by divisive racial politics to find his own true political voice - and proposes a way for him to break those bonds and find his own voice.

Steele, in the video discussion, founds his thesis on certain claims:
"I think that finally, that the Barack Obama phenomenon is far, far more about white America than it is about Barack Obama, who after all is just a man, though I think a talented one -- but I don't know if he's talented enough to come from the state Legislature in Illinois two years ago to this incredible run for the presidency. It usually takes something more than talent to do that, and what I think it takes in this case or has taken is that in white America today, there is a hunger, a deep hunger, to somehow get past this shameful racial divide that we all as Americans have been tortured by, one way or another, since even before the beginnings of the country.

So I think that he is ironically a candidate who lives on this hope, this hunger, who has been put in this place as the man to sort of carry that -- and after all, if a black man were actually to be elected of the presidency of the United States, a black man elected to the presidency of a largely white society, wouldn't that really be a moral leap forward, wouldn't that really be transcendent, wouldn't that really make the point that we no longer are that shameful, racist society that we once were? And the longing is so powerul for that to happen, on some level, and Obama is so adept at eliciting that feeling from whites, that he has come very, very, very far, very quickly -- but again I think it's more about this circumstance in white America than it is about him as an individual.

He's a kind of a paradox, because the attractiveness of Barack Obama's campaign is that he is going to somehow bring us to a racial transcendence, we're going to transcend. That's really what it's about with Obama. Most people don't know what his policy positions are, but they do know that. But if your candidacy is about racial transcendence, that you're not going to be bringing race in to the campaign, this is not going to be a black campaign, then ironically, your candidacy is 100 percent about race. That's all it's about. What other idea would he have that would catch fire like that? I think his candidacy in that sense is entirely about race. If he were not black, I don't know that we would know his name.

I think we can all readily acknowledge that a black presidential candidate like Obama is uniquely situated to help the nation transcend the racial divide in a way that's much more difficult for any white candidate. But Steele utterly misses the point of Obama's appeal in a fundamental way -- which is that he's arguing for a politics that moves beyond identity issues and focuses on building bridges between formerly divided interests. While Hillary Clinton's campaign tends to be about her potential as our first woman president, Obama has been emphasizing that everyone look past his race and instead focus on the style of leadership he presents -- something that in fact is only secondarily related to his racial identity at best.

Even George Will understands this:
Steele has brilliantly dissected the intellectual perversities that present blacks as dependent victims, reduced to trading on their moral blackmail of whites who are eager to be blackmailed in exchange for absolution. But Steele radically misreads Obama, missing his emancipation from those perversities. Obama seems to understand America's race fatigue, the unbearable boredom occasioned by today's stale politics generally and by the perfunctory theatrics of race especially.

So far, Obama is the Fred Astaire of politics -- graceful and elegant, with a surface so pleasing to the eye that it seems mistaken, even greedy, to demand depth. No one, however, would have given Astaire control of nuclear weapons, so attention must be paid to Obama's political as well as aesthetic qualities.

Steele notes that Obama "seems to have little talent for anger." But that is because Obama has opted out of the transaction Steele vigorously deplores. The political implications of this transcendence of confining categories are many, profound and encouraging.

What is not particularly encouraging is that Will's voice is a minority among conservatives -- the vast majority of whom seem to be adopting either the Sailer/Steele worldview (it's about white guilt) or, worse still, picking up the Obama is a liberal fascist Muslim commie theme. Either way, for all these conservatives, the only thing that matters about Obama is his race.

Yet these same conservatives will roll their eyes at the very implication that this kind of obsessiveness reveals any innate or underlying bigotry on their part. Why, they'd be just peachy with a black conservative president -- though they seem reluctant to explain why there happen to be so few such creatures even in the Congress, let alone in any kind of leadership position within the movement.

And then they'll tell us with a straight face that in transcending identity politics, Obama is in fact all about identity politics. Why, the Queen of Hearts couldn't have argued it any better.

Of course, we've been hearing variations on this schtick for some years: Efforts to overcome the effects of institutionalized racism, such as affirmative action, are in fact acts of racism themselves, we're told. Being intolerant of racists is just another kind of bigotry. And it's those minorities and their identity politics who are all obsessed with race -- why, whites (and especially white conservatives) are now perfectly color-blind, dontcha know?

Reminds of this recent strip from Secret Asian Man:

My friend Max Blumenthal once adroitly observed that "only gay men think about gay men more than Values Voters do," which may explain why so many conservative Republicans wind up being exposed publicly as sexual hypocrites of the first rank, cruising men's bathrooms and being found dead with scuba gear and a dildo up your ass. There's something about self-repression that screws you up badly.

I think we can pretty much say the same thing about conservatives regarding race. None of them are willing to cop to their obsession with Obama's race, and so they insist that the only reason Democrats support Obama is their obsession with race.

And let's be frank here: When liberals bring up the subject of race nowadays, it's almost always in the context of dealing with bigotry and racism.

But when white conservatives talk about race, what we get are:

-- Arguments that modern eugenicists and books like The Bell Curve are somehow "right," and that speaking up in their defense is some kind of moral courageousness.

-- Constant warnings about "the death of white culture" being caused by the wave of brown Latino immigrants coming to our shores.

-- Suggestions that blacks are innately criminals inclined to thuggery (as well as hopeless buffoons incapable of getting out of the disaster's way) in the wake of the Katrina disaster.

-- Hopeful musings that a failed Obama candidacy might spark black civil unrest, or that an eventual Obama presidency would be mau-maued to death like Jimmy Carter's, causing Democrats to abandon blacks.

Conservatives like Derbyshire and Steele assume that blacks are attracted to the Democratic Party solely for its ability and willingness to cater to their interests, rather than being about the party's devotion to civil rights and equality of opportunity for all. Right-wingers seem to believe that these principles really are nothing more than cynical manipulations for the sake of electoral gain that can be abandoned at will -- but as always, it's clear that they're just projecting once again.

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